The Art of Political Leadership

February 1, 2017

Not even a month after Trump’s unexpected election victory, the nature of his administration continues to reveal itself as more vicious and dangerous, even sinister, than any other. His program is clearly an expression of the will of America’s financial elite to enrich itself through all available means: rolling back environmental regulations and labor protections, gutting essential social programs, slashing corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy, embarking on a massive military build-up to threaten nations who stand in the way, and, most ominously, waging war. As suggested by the appeals of the administration to the military and police—Trump reportedly wanted to roll tanks and other mechanized weaponry down the inaugural parade route—the massive social opposition that has already begun to appear to the agenda, and will surely intensify, may well be met with police-state repression. 

What we are witnessing is America’s capitalist class fully empowered (by both Republicans and Democrats), throwing off all restraints on its accumulation of ever more wealth and power, and pressing into its service all vital social institutions: the military, the educational system, the media, and government. This is what oligarchy looks like. 

In this context, the relationship between the people and its political leaders is almost entirely centered on public relations.  The entire state apparatus becomes an “instrument of class rule,” as Marx put it, pursuing policies directly inimical to the broad mass of the population, and so the interface between politician and citizen becomes basically a series of lies meant to mask the real agenda or manipulate public opinion in various directions (such as to support tax cuts for the wealthy or to support yet another war). Truth can only be spoken in private, away from cameras and microphones, though increasingly their vastly increased power has emboldened the world’s financial aristocrats—I think of JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, apparently not a man known for his sense of humor, and his offhand remark at Davos that the program of the assembled billionaires and their media and government lackeys must be to “make elites great again.”[1]

What is almost always missing in media and even academic analyses of this nightmare we have all entered into is that it is not particularly the fault of this or that politician and his or her individual ideas or character. Most everyone seems to believe that if Hillary Clinton had won, the country would not be in such a dire crisis. But take the policies being put into place by the Trump Administration and the Republicans, and see if they are really unique to him. War: Clinton was savagely pro-war both during her time in the State Department, as a senator, and as first lady. She was one of the leading architects of the Libyan tragedy, among other things, and doggedly pursued policies that would have brought us directly into armed conflict with Russia. On issues of war and peace, she was squarely on the side of US elites who are seeking to maintain world economic dominance through military means. The economy? She was the chosen candidate of Wall Street and corporate power, who famously stated in one of her lucrative Wall Street speeches that she had “a private and a public position” on the issues, the private one representing the bidding of her corporate masters and the public one nothing but a smokescreen of lies to deceive the public. The environment: the climate situation remains as dire as it was before Obama took office, and Clinton had proposed no serious proposals for reversing it. Even on the Dakota Access Pipeline issue, she refused to support the protestors, who are fighting not for some ultra-left-wing agenda but merely for clean water. The amount of agreement between a Trump and a Clinton is such as to constitute an identity of overall intent. 

This is not to say that between nominal progressives like Clinton (or Sanders or Warren) and the hard Right there are not marginal differences, some of which are extremely significant. But it is to say that both are equally mere vehicles for serving the interests of the US ruling class.

In explanation of this situation, I would point to the basic class character of American society, with its politically empowered wealthy one-percent and the great majority of the population at their mercy, politically and economically. But that is not what concerns me in this essay. I wish rather to examine this breakdown in the integrity of the society in light of the notion that political leadership, like other basic functions within a political community, has a definite God-given end or telos and is what the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition calls an art.[2] With this idea in hand, we will better see how far things have slipped and what we have a right to expect from our politicians.

Art is a kind of knowledge, but of a sort that achieves a certain result. It is not purely speculative. Rather it is a knowledge of how to bring about a benefit for the sake of others. It presupposes an ideal for those who are the recipients of the benefit. Thus if a man is a physician he is so on account of the knowledge that he possesses that presupposes an ideal of health for his patient. His knowledge of what health is allows him to make a diagnosis of the patient’s condition, prescribe a treatment plan, and then formulate a further plan for following up to ensure that the treatment was effective.[3] Not everyone in the society is a physician of course, and that is part of what gives an art its special status. It is possessed by a few, by those who have undergone the rigorous education process to obtain it. In the case of the physician the patient lacks the knowledge the physician possesses. But the patient comes to believe that the physician has such knowledge, and then voluntarily enters into the physician-patient relationship. This involves a certain degree of risk for the patient since he lacks the knowledge by which he could make certain that the physician is in possession of medical knowledge. This risk is inherent in the relationship entailed by art.

By virtue of his superior knowledge and the patient’s voluntary choice to submit to his care, the physician now has the right to lead the subject in the following of the treatment plan. This is the basis of authority in the Platonic conception: voluntary submission justified by superior knowledge on the part of the wielder of the authority and the justified expectation of a great benefit to be received by the patient. What we really see here in this physician-patient relationship, and in any artist-beneficiary relationship, is a relationship between ruler and ruled.

As Plato says in Republic, Book I, the ruler does not rule for his own benefit but for the sake of the ruled—“. . . all rule, insofar as it is rule, considers nothing, in public and private, except what is best for what is ruled and served” (345e). The artist does not act for his own sake, as in the modern view. One might say that the physician is only acting in expectation of profit, but money making is an activity separate from art. Insofar as he only practices medicine, the benefit goes to the patient, not the physician. Money-making is a separate activity and constitutes not an art but a skill, according to Grimes (see note 2). With a skill, the primary beneficiary is the wielder of the skill, not a separate benefited group. Nor is there involved an ideal that pictures a great benefit to man. The salesman, for instance, only wishes to get paid. He does not operate on the basis of an ideal for his customer. And the benefit accrues to him alone, or his employer, and only accidentally benefits the purchaser. He (generally) has no scruples that might come from the possessing an ideal for his customer. He’ll make the sale regardless of whether the customer can afford the purchase or if he will really benefit.

Now, if the “ruler” is found out as acting only for his own benefit or for interest other than the natural beneficiary, the “subject” is justified in dissolving the relationship. The quack can be dragged into court and his medical license revoked.

It is easy to see how this notion of art illuminates the nature of political leadership. The political leader must be in possession of a knowledge that is based an ideal of human society, of the just society, and the people, the ruled, have a right to expect that this state will be reached. It is a state of excellence or aratea, virtue: in this case, the right functioning of all the parts of the society to achieve the analogue of health in the body. Thus the politician must know what justice is, what the parts of the society are, and how they function together to achieve the just state (the common good in Catholic Social Teaching). Those who would be our leaders should be able to answer questions about the make-up of society, what their conditions are, and what the “treatment plan” is. Does he have a follow-up plan for making sure treatment plan is working?

Consider the physician again. The physician does not just treat the eye, say. He should know how the proper functioning of the eye relates to the ideal of the overall health of the body. Otherwise, the patient may have wonderful eyesight even as his overall health is failing. In the same way, the politician must take into account every division of society and every citizen, knowing thoroughly their present conditions, and evaluating their situation in light of the ideal he possesses (he does not focus just on the Dow or the ability to wage war). Then he can formulate his treatment plan, and we can choose wisely among would-be political leaders. Traditional societies tend to operate this way. There is a place for everyone and work for everyone to do. In Vedic political philosophy, the first duty of the ruler is considered to be ensuring that everyone has an occupation.

Can you think of a living politician who could tell us about all the segments of American society, what their conditions are, how they can be made to work together to reach the common good, and what a workable plan would be for bridging the gap—the treatment plan? It is impossible think of one. The current political landscape is made up of merely skilled politicians serving this or that interest group within the ruling elite. They may present to us a picture of an ideal attractive enough to get us to vote for them. But we are fooled every time. The program always turns out to be serving some interest outside the common good.

By now we should recognize that the political class, Republican and Democrat alike, is serving the interests of its own elite constituency, just like the quack physician, or like the unscrupulous salesman. For this reason, I think it is arguable that the political establishment has lost the basis of its authority, which is that we, the ruled, reasonably believe that it is generally acting for the sake of the common good, not some other interest. What has not yet arisen is a practical way of dissolving the relationship with the present corrupt ruling class. Electoral politics haven’t worked, it must be admitted, and I don’t think we want violent revolution. I believe the work we must be engaged in instead is to educate ourselves about what we have a right to expect from political leaders and what the common good looks like, and then begin to form associations devoted to realizing the just society.

Doran Hunter






[1] Miriam Elder, “Behind Closed Doors at Davos: Make Elites Great Again,” BuzzFeedNews, January 22nd, 2017 [a].

[2] In this, I am following Pierre Grimes’s synthesis of the Platonic conception of art from the Ion, Republic Book I, and the Symposium in his lecture, “Plato’s Republic, Ion, and Symposium,” available at this site. Here, I will make use only of a small component of his overall view, namely the implication of the concept of an art for politics.

[3] This formulation of diagnosis according to an ideal, treatment plan, and follow up is Grimes’s.